A Tiger for Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

  There was a jungle superstition about how the tiger came to have stripes. The first tiger in creation was very much like a lion, endowed with a tawny, shining coat of pure gold. Imagine! But he offended some forest spirit, which branded his back with hot coal. Thus goes the fable, which I didn’t believe in, a canard started by some jealous creature like the leopard who felt inferior owing to his spots, but made a virtue of it. The leopard couple sang this fable every time I passed by, a monotonous silly song; I would have put an end to their song if I could have seen where they were - they were mostly unseen, and just streaked away like lightning when glimpsed. I was helpless with this truant. It hurt my pride as a ruler of the jungle, while all other creatures respected my status, bowed to it and kept out of my way. Night and day I spent in planning and thinking how best to humble the leopard or exterminate him. Sometimes I set out to track him down in his lair, in a deep hollow or inside a cave. When I went in quest, he would invariably anticipate my arrival and sneak away, and then sit atop a steep, slippery rock, and eye me with contempt or go up a banyan tree with the ease of a squirrel ... I realized soon that I had to tolerate his existence and bide my time. This was a great worry for me. He disturbed and scared off my game and was ahead of me in hunting.

  The leopard was not the last of my worries. I could ignore him and go my way. Not so a female of our species, whom I encountered beyond those mango groves - a creature as large as myself, I suppose. I smelt her presence a long way off. I hesitated whether to turn back or advance. I was out to hunt for the evening, and if I had not been hungry I would have withdrawn and gone my way in a different direction. But I was proceeding to the meadow beyond the valley where I knew a herd of deer always grazed. I noticed her sitting erect in the middle of the road blocking my passage. I’d never seen her before; probably from an adjoining forest. Normally we respected each other’s territories and never intruded. My temper rose at the sight of her. ‘Get out of my way and go back where you belong,’I roared. She just took it as a joke and showed no response except a slight wave of her tail. This was complete insolence and not to be tolerated. With her back to me she was watching the herd in the meadow. I was furious and jumped on her back and tried to throttle her, with the sort of hold that would make a wild buffalo limp in a second. But this lady surprised me by throwing me off her back with a jerk. My claws were buried in her skin, but that did not make any difference to her as she turned round and gashed my eyes and bit my throat. Fortunately I had shut my eyes, but my brow was torn and blood trickled down my eyes. The jackal, as always attracted by the smell of blood, was there as if summoned, hiding behind a thicket of thorns; he made his presence felt, and mumbled some advice, which was lost in the uproar the lady was creating as she returned for the attack and knocked me off my feet by ramming into me. I have never encountered anyone so strong.

  Now the safest course for me would be to retreat gracefully to my cave and get away from this monster quickly. But my dignity would be lost - especially with the jackal there watching my humiliation. I should fight it out, even if one of us were to die in the process. We butted into each other, scratched, clawed, wrestled, grappled, gashing, biting, tearing each other, and I also stood up and threw my weight on her and struck, but it was like beating a rock - she was no normal animal: there is a limit to physical endurance; and I could stand it no longer; I collapsed on the ground bleeding from every pore; I had no strength even to run away, which I wished I had done earlier instead of bothering about prestige before the damned jackal. If I had seized and choked the jackal, I could have saved my blood.

  In a few places my skin hung down in ribbons. My satisfaction was that the monster, my adversary, seemed to have fared no better. She had also collapsed in a ditch, no less bloody, with her flesh torn up and exposed. I noticed also that while I could open my eyes with blood dripping, she lay with her eyes swollen and sealed. I remembered aiming at her eyes just as she was trying to gouge out mine, but I seemed to have had better luck. It was her inability to open her eyes, more than physical collapse, which forced her to withdraw.

  While both of us lay panting, the jackal came out of his shelter and, standing at a safe distance, raised his voice so that both of us could hear him. He knew that neither of us was in a state to go for him if we did not like his words; all the same he kept his distance and a possible retreat open. The jackal asked with an air of great humility, ‘May I know why you have been fighting and brought on yourselves this misery? If you can show even half of half a reason, I shall be satisfied.’Neither of us could answer, but only moan and growl. For the condition I was in, the jackal could have patted my cheeks or pulled my whiskers and got away with it. I could at least see the world around but the tigress was blinded for the time being.

  The jackal continued ingratiatingly, ‘If you cannot discover a reason to be enemies, why don’t you consider being friends? How grand you could make it if you joined forces - you could become supreme in this jungle and the next and the next; no one will ever try to stand up to you, except a crazy tusker, whom you could toss about between you two ... If you combined you could make all the jungle shake.’

  His words sounded agreeable. I felt a sudden compassion for my adversary and also gratitude for being spared my life. I struggled to get up on my feet and, mistaking my action, the jackal swiftly withdrew and disappeared before I could say, ‘You have advised us well.’I limped along to the tigress very cautiously and expressed my contrition and desire to make amends. She was in no condition to rise or see me. I cleaned up the bloody mess covering her eyes and sat beside her huge body, paying all attention and performing many acts of tenderness - till she was able to open one eye slightly and stir, and it filled me with dread lest she should kill me instantly. She could have easily done it, if she was so disposed. But a change had come over her too. My ministrations seemed to have helped her to recover her breath, vision, and the use of her limbs. She followed me quietly, although both of us were limping, to an adjacent pond and we splashed about in the water till we were cleansed of blood and felt revived.

  We have no reckoning of time in the manner of human beings. But by the time the scars on our backs were dry, a litter of four was added to our family, climbing and jumping over us all the time in the cave.

  It was all very well as long as they were sucklings. At that stage they never moved away, their horizon being their mother’s belly. The little ones were happy, continuously suckling, or when fully fed, climbing and jumping over their mother’s immense sides as she stretched herself across the floor of our home. It left me free to roam in the jungle and rest, away from the family. Usually I found the shade of a bamboo cluster very pleasant - I merged in its speckled shade so completely that some little buck or minor game would stray near me, and I’d only have to turn and grab in order to provide food for the cubs.

  When they grew up and discovered the use of their limbs, they ran about in different directions. They were now at an unsafe stage. Any bear or bison could trample them out of existence: no reason why such a thing should happen - except that the jungle was a devilish place, where the weak or the young received no consideration for their helpless state. We had to guard them all the time. One would run in the direction of the stream, another wade through, and the third would have climbed a rock, where a colony of giant eagles nested, which might swoop down and carry him off, leaving his bones to bleach in the sun. Equally dangerous were the pythons who just swallowed whole whatever came their way. Also there was the danger of the cubs slipping and rolling down into the ravine. We had to save them from destruction every other minute. They were now too large to be carried by the scruff, and we caught and pummelled them along back into the cave, and one of us would lie across the entrance to prevent their going out again. This could be no permanent solution.

  A time came when the obstacle at the cave-mouth made no difference to them. When the sentry parent was fallen into a doze, they could easily hop over him and explore the world. Though we enjoye
d the spectacle of our cubs’ activities, it was becoming a sore trial. It was my turn one evening to guard the cubs. Their mother had gone out in search of prey. I saw her go down the sandy slope across the river and climb the other bank. I had supposed the cubs were playing inside at the back wall of the cave. But at some moment when I was not alert enough, they must have vaulted over me and escaped. When I woke up I saw them wading across the river, their little heads bobbing above the water. I watched them go, feeling too lazy to run after them. Evidently they were following their mother’s scent. No harm. I could see them go up the opposite bank; they could reach their mother and come back later. After all they had to gain experience: it’d do them good to watch their mother hunt and share a fresh kill.

  The air blowing in our direction brought some strange unfamiliar noises, and crackling sounds like twigs breaking. I felt disturbed and bewildered. No sign of the cubs or the mother. I let out a roar that should ring through the forest, valleys and mountains, and summon back my family. Normally when I called there would be an answer, but today there was none - only the twittering of birds waking at dawn. I ventured out, down the sand and across the river, following the course I had watched the cubs take; the scent led me on and on to the ridge, and then down a valley to the plains which had a path leading to human habitations beyond the jungle. I cried in anguish and desperation - but silenced myself and crouched unobtrusively when I noticed far off in the valley down below a line of men passing, pulling and pushing an open cart on which were laid out the cubs and their mother. The men were singing and shouting vociferously, and did not hear my cry. I had thought till now that our jungle home was impregnable, and unapproachable for human beings. In fact, I had hardly seen any specimen till this moment. Now human feet had strayed in and touched our ground, and that brought to my mind strange forebodings. I watched the revellers wend their way. They were too intoxicated to notice me, since I lay concealed behind the boulders. As the procession wound along, I hopped on to another rock and stalked them. As the sun came up my eyes were dazzled, and the procession melted into thin air. I edged to the shade of an overhanging cliff and stayed there.

  I slept till dusk. I got up and moved in the direction the procession had gone. I took care not to be noticed by any jungle creature - particularly the owl or the jackal who always spied on my movements. I moved away from the trees on which the owl generally was perched and the bushes where the jackal would be sneaking around. I kept my movements along the rocks on the hill at a safe height. When I arrived at a village, I found most of the inhabitants asleep. Noiselessly I went up and lay beside a well until everything was quiet.

  The cart in which the cubs and their mother were laid out was left to one side in the village street. I could see it all clearly from my hiding place. The sight of my family stretched out there filled me with fury. In those days I was still a tiger, an unmitigated animal, and the only feeling that was aroused in me was fury, rather than grief, which I understand now. A blind, impossible anger stirred within me: I just wanted to dash up, pounce upon every creature, bite and claw and destroy. I wanted to spring forward, pick up the cubs and carry them away.

  Just as I was getting ready to dash up, a set of human beings arrived in a strange vehicle, which I now understand to be a jeep. They shouted and summoned the villagers. The village was astir and a crowd gathered around the cart, and there was much jabbering, arguments and shouting. I held myself back although I felt a great drive within to pounce on that whole lot and tear their entrails. But I held myself back. No one knew that I was there. I lay low, watched them transfer the carcasses to the back of their jeep, and drive off. The villagers went back to their homes; silence and darkness fell on the village. I came out of my hiding place behind the well and prowled around. Some of the street dogs started barking and woke up the villagers again. Before they could notice me, I withdrew and went back to my hiding place beside the well. Even there I could not stay too long. Women started approaching the well carrying pots and buckets and chattering among themselves; I slipped back and hid myself on the hill behind lantana bushes.

  Another day’s sun came up, and I dozed off till the evening. When the sun went down again and dusk fell, I watched the villagers returning from their fields, carrying bundles of firewood on their heads, driving their flocks home. I slipped through the lantana shrub and lay in wait by their path, well concealed behind a boulder, and pounced upon the last animal in a column, seized its throat, and made off with it. My hunger was appeased for at least two days. I could not repeat this strategy. Later when the villager realized that he had lost an animal and followed the bloodstains, I had to change my tactics, as well as my abode. I eluded the villagers again and again.

  They must have begun to wonder about the shape of the predator in their midst. ‘Can’t be a tiger,’they must have thought, ‘the hunters have taken away the entire family, by this time they’ll have sold the skin of the adult, and stuffed the cubs as trophies.’

  ‘But it was a tigress; the father must still be at large.’

  ‘Oh, no,’the local animal expert must have explained, ‘you must understand that a male tiger hardly ever lives with the family ... Must be a visitor from another forest. Tigers are not family-bound like monkeys and other creatures. Monkeys belong to a more advanced group ...’Human beings have their own theories, and it is always amusing to hear them talk about us. Such ignorance and self-assurance!

  Presently they must have concluded: ‘It could not have been a tiger at all, but a cheetah, or even a hyena, which steals up and attacks. A tiger would not be satisfied with a sheep, but always attacks larger cattle ...’

  Nowadays I chose a smaller animal from the herd, since I could manage it without leaving a trail, and eat afresh a whole thing. With a larger animal, I had to keep the kill for a second meal, and that always betrayed my presence, since it attracts the wretches who trailed me for scraps and leavings. I kept my abode constantly changing. It was safer and advantageous too to move along the mountain range. It gave me a very wide area of cover. I moved from place to place, and discovered that below the mountain range in the valleys and plains there were human habitations, to which the cattle were driven back in the evenings. I could repeat my tactics everywhere: lie in wait and seize the last one in the herd and vanish. Among those scattered villages, news spread very slowly, and that was to my advantage. I preferred my present method of seeking food - it spared me all the fatigue and uncertainty of hunting in the jungle. Jungle creatures are more alert and elusive than the village cattle, stupid creatures which could never anticipate danger even when passing under my chin while I crouched on a rock.

  Village folk soon realized that they were losing their animals regularly. Some thought a devil was around, and were preparing to perform propitiatory ceremonies in their villages. Also they took care to drive their flocks back home while there was still sunlight, and had more men to guard them. This affected me adversely, but only for a short time. I began to scout around the villages at night, when the men put out the lamps and retired for the day.

  Once, along a ditch running down a village street, I moved on soft foot; nothing stirred except bandicoots, scampering away. The village mongrels curled in the street dust were unaware, so silently did I move. Otherwise they would have howled and brought the entire village on me. At the centre of the village, I noticed an enclosure made of bamboo and all kinds of brambles and thorn, with a little door of the same kind. The door could not be pushed open by the stupid sheep penned within the stockade, but I could get through it without any effort. I seized the nearest creature, but before I could turn round and get out, the cry of the lamb I had caught set the whole flock bleating, crying, howling in panic, enough noise to wake up the villagers peacefully slumbering in their homes. In a moment they were out, screaming and shouting obscenities at the enemy invading their sanctum. ‘Ah! Now we know! We have him. He must not escape ...’

  They came rushing down in great force holding up flaming t
orches, hatchets, crowbars, and staves. I was about to dash out with my prize, but in the confusion that ensued, I lost sight of the door. I had never seen humans in such a frenzy of shouting. I never knew that humans beings could be so devilish. They were all armed, aimed spears at me and hit me with arrows while I was desperately trying to find a way out. More than their weapons, the sight of their flaming torches, red-coloured and smoking viciously, was completely unnerving. I dropped the lamb, my only ambition now being to escape with my skin intact. I had never been so close to fire: sometimes in summer, we noticed forest fires far off, but they would not be frightening, and we kept our distance from them. But now the fire was choking, blinding and scorching: one fellow flung his torch at me, which singed my skin, another threw a spear which gashed my side; I ran round and round madly; I could not fall upon my pursuers as I could not see them clearly. The crowd was intent on murdering me. They were heaving huge rocks at me. Men in their frenzy seemed to have lost all fear, and boys of all ages were cursing and chasing me round and round - I could have fallen on any of them and scattered them but for the fire in their hands. It was unbearable. I was bleeding from the cuts on my face and limbs and I wished I were dead. I would have welcomed death in preference to the torture I was facing now.

  Penned in the stockade, I felt hopeless and exhausted. The monsters chased and tormented me. Luckily for me a mishap occurred at this desperate moment. A boy who was capering with a torch at the end of a bamboo pole, while attempting to poke me, held his flame too close to the fence, which caught fire. Their attention was now diverted to saving the sheep. They demolished the stockade and opened a way out. Wedged between bleating sheep, which received the blows meant for me, I ran out and escaped into the night.

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